Paul Ryan's thin skin

Running with Mitt Romney has introduced him to something he's not very comfortable with: Follow-up questions

Published October 9, 2012 1:58PM (EDT)

  (AP/Madalyn Ruggiero)
(AP/Madalyn Ruggiero)

Paul Ryan, we are discovering, does not always handle follow-up questions that well.

The latest evidence came yesterday afternoon, when an interview with a local television reporter in Michigan turned testy and was ended by Ryan’s aide.

The dispute was ostensibly over gun control. Asked by reporter Terry Camp of WJRT in Flint if America has a gun problem, Ryan responded that the country has a crime problem. “Not a gun problem?” Camp asked. “No,” Ryan replied, arguing that existing laws should be enforced and that “the best thing to help prevent violent crime in the inner cities is to bring opportunity to the inner cities” – for “charities, and civic groups and churches” to teach people “good discipline, good character.”

“And you can do all that by cutting taxes – with a big tax cut,” Camp replied.

“Those are your words, not mine,” Ryan said, at which point his aide stepped in to end the interview.

“That was kind of strange – trying to stuff words in people’s mouths,” Ryan told Camp as he took his microphone off.

As Erik Wemple points out, it’s unclear what Camp’s intent here was. Ryan interpreted his words about tax cuts as a rude expression of skepticism and editorializing, but Camp and the station insist he wasn’t trying to make any kind of political statement and was merely asking another question. It’s certainly possible that Camp was just trying to prompt Ryan to expand his thoughts, and that he used some clumsy short-hand to do it.

The way Ryan chose to handle this seems noteworthy, though. Several times in the past few months, he’s been pressed by reporters and has had trouble deflecting lines of questioning that make him uncomfortable.

When he first joined the GOP ticket, for instance, Ryan sat for what everyone assumed would be a friendly interview with Fox News’ Brit Hume, who asked him about the long amount of time – not until 2040 – that it would take his fiscal blueprint to produce a balanced budget. Ryan replied that he wasn’t running on his budget plan – he was running on Romney’s. OK, Hume replied, well how long will it take Romney’s plan to bring about a balanced budget.

“I don’t know exactly when it balances,” Ryan conceded, “because we have – I don’t want to get wonky on you, but we have to run the numbers on that specific plan.”

More recently, there was Ryan’s sit-down with Fox’s Chris Wallace, who quizzed him about the Romney tax plan’s lack of specificity. Romney proposes a 20 percent across-the-board tax cut and insists he’ll make it deficit neutral by closing loopholes and deductions, but he hasn’t specified which ones. Wallace challenged Ryan to explain how the math would work.

“Well, I don’t have the time,” Ryan replied. “It would take me too long to go through all the math.”

That answer won Ryan no shortage of ridicule. It points to the steep learning curve he’s faced since being tapped as Romney’s No. 2. As a congressman, Ryan has been unusually visible, but the press coverage he’s received has tended to be rather fawning – reporters, columnists and television hosts giving him a chance to outline his plan and the hailing him as the rare adult in DC who’s willing to produce serious ideas.

It’s easy to get accustomed to that kind of treatment. But since August (and particularly since his vice presidential acceptance speech), the media has treated him with more skepticism, demanding that he and Romney fill in the blanks on their plans. Ryan doesn’t always seem used to aggressive scrutiny and follow-up questioning in interviews, and it’s shown on several occasions now. The interview with Camp isn’t a huge deal, but Ryan probably could have handled it in a way that didn’t create a big story. It’s a reminder that he’s still learning. And it makes this week’s VP debate that much more interesting, since Ryan figures to come in for some aggressive questioning from his opponent, Joe Biden.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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